In 2022, the Government of Rwanda announced its target to achieve universal electricity access by 2024 as part of its transition to become a middle income country. The government aims to achieve this by connecting 70% of households to the grid and 30% to off-grid solar photovoltaic (PV) systems.
As of June 2022, the Rwanda Energy Group, a government-owned holding company responsible for the import, export, procurement, generation, transmission, distribution, and sale of electricity in Rwanda, estimate the cumulative connective rate of Rwandan households to be 73%. This includes the 51% of households connected to the national grid and 22% accessing electricity through off-grid systems, such as mini-grids and solar PV systems.
Reaching the final 27% of households will be critical to achieving 100% energy access for all. And solar PV systems are a key ingredient to manage this development in a sustainable way.
Commonwealth Alumnus Faustin Ahishakiye is the founder and Director of Stellar Engineering Ltd., a Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing (MEP) and Renewable Energy company in Rwanda. Faustin founded the company in December 2019 following the completion of his MSc in Renewable Energy at Cranfield University. The company aims to provide safe, secure, and clean electricity and to support rural electrification. Over the next few years, Faustin hopes to grow Stellar Engineering Ltd. to be a leading MEP and renewable energy company in Rwanda and East Africa.
The catalyst for change
Faustin’s Commonwealth Scholarship and MSc in Renewable Energy was the catalyst for founding his company. With a background in electrical engineering, he had little previous exposure to the importance of renewable energy as a clean energy or its potential to provide energy access in rural areas through the installation of solar PV systems. Growing up in a rural area himself, Faustin’s first-hand experience of the impact of unequal access to electricity was a further motivation.
“[A]fter completing my studies, I was thinking it’s unfair that people in remote areas and in the rural areas don’t have access to electricity. It was like electricity is for the people in the cities not the people in rural areas. That’s what motivated me to create that company.”
Achieving renewable energy access for all
In January 2022, Faustin secured a project through the Renewable Energy Fund (REF) for Stellar Engineering Ltd. to operate as an off-grid solar company in Rwanda. REF is the country’s largest off-grid expansion programme and was designed to help increase electricity access in Rwanda and facilitate renewable off-grid electrification. The Fund is supported by the Government of Rwanda and Development Bank of Rwanda and supervised by the World Bank.
Through the project, between January and August 2022, Stellar Engineering Ltd. has connected over 800 non-electrified households to the project’s Off-grid Solar Home System, thereby providing them with renewable electricity access in the Huye and Nyanza district of the Southern province of Rwanda. The solar home system provides access to home lighting, USB phone charging, and FM digital radio through a 20W solar panel and 6,000mAh lithium ion battery storage.
Of these households, Faustin is proud to share that more than 70% are female-led. This is of significance as women are typically not included in this type of household decision making, despite being held responsible for household duties according to Rwandan culture. Instead, it is viewed as a man’s responsibility. As such, promotion and education around electrification and renewable energy is often not aimed at women.
Faustin, however, observed that women are interested in learning about the new technology, and their attendance at many activities related to the adoption of renewables including promotion, advertising, awareness campaigns, and training and education sessions about the solar home systems, is very high.
Observing this cultural issue, through this project Faustin has made efforts to encourage women to attend marketing and education events promoting the Off-grid Solar Home System.
“[W]e have grown up in this culture that considers women incapable… we needed to change the mindset of our community, trying to tell them that it’s not about sex, it’s about someone who is responsible.”
Upskilling rural youth and tackling unemployment
Faustin now employs 25 part-time rural youth to supply and install the solar home systems for the project. His decision to recruit young people in rural areas carries advantages for his company, for the unemployment rate in Rwanda, and for the longer-term sustainability of the project.
Installing the solar systems doesn’t require complex skills or qualifications, but instead training in technical skills that can be learned through workshops and supervised on-the-job training. As such, it provides an opportunity for those without school or university qualifications and limited job prospects to access employment, gain new skills, and support government aims.
“[W]e have a very big challenge of unemployment in our country. I was seeing it as a solution to them [and] they were very happy. Instead of just staying at home for one month or two months without doing anything, at least they can come and work with us for two weeks, three weeks, four weeks.”
Through a series of training opportunities and hands-on experience, Faustin has created a network of skilled workers who can both install and maintain the solar systems. Whilst the products have a three-year warranty, Faustin stresses that they can and will be used beyond this time frame and therefore maintenance will be critical to the long-term success of the project and renewable off-grid electrification.
“Training local youths at least to have these basic skills about these systems [means] that in terms of maintenance or repair, they can just be helping the community.”
Faustin is now seeking funds for further training to provide each sector (between the district and village level) in Rwanda with at least two qualified technicians to support end users and help maintain the solar home systems.
Overcoming challenges and uncovering opportunities
Providing universal access to electricity for all is not an easy undertaking and there are several challenges to overcome, such as securing financial investment and the development of new infrastructure to enable grid connections and the installation of energy systems.
As a small company, Faustin notes that accessing the supply chain to purchase renewable off-grid energy systems to install and sell to households at an affordable rate is problematic. In response to this, he is working with other similar small companies to form a group that will help increase their collective purchasing power to buy systems and therefore increase market affordability and availability leading to more off-grid connections.
Faustin is aware there is still a gap in the number of skilled people working in the renewable energy sector in Rwanda and in the level of public awareness of the advantages of renewable energy. With his professional experience in electrical engineering and the MEP sector and his knowledge of renewable energy, Faustin is well situated to bridge this gap and promote new opportunities.
One such opportunity is the potential to install a solar PV rooftop at Solace Medical Clinic in the Gasabo district of Kigali. Faustin has designed an 85kWp storage rooftop solar home system for the clinic and calculates that installing such a rooftop will provide at least 40% of the energy consumption of the clinic and provide a clean energy back-up generator during power cuts. The cost of installing a solar power rooftop is not cheap, however Faustin is keen to highlight that the benefits can be numerous. This includes reducing the climate impact of the clinic through clean electricity and achieving good health and wellbeing outcomes through a stable source of electricity that can power healthcare services.
“[M]ost [developers], when they were calculating the benefits of Solar Energy adoption as a new clean, safe and affordable source of energy to their properties, they were only focusing on money. But when we were studying, it was not only about money. It was also about how you are helping your community to be living in a safe world in the future.”
Why renewable energy matters
Faustin is committed to identifying and promoting the wider benefits of renewable energy to achieve the aims of his company and universal access to electricity in Rwanda, as well as to promote the importance of more sustainable and climate friendly interventions.
“[My] MSc in Renewable Energy has helped me to understand more why this, and the future world, needs renewable energy as a key solution to the sustainable future of this planet. In my bachelor’s degree, I used to know renewable energy as a source of energy that could be used in normal life, like light up our homes and powering our appliances. But it’s related problems- that it was too expensive, low efficiency, not reliable- was discouraging to the point I was not interested [to learn] more about it.
“My studies in Renewable Energy have opened my mind- more to the point, I have come to know why it matters as the key solutions to the climate crisis our world is facing. Therefore, the high adoption will lead to a safe and secure future for the generations to come.”
Faustin Ahishakiye is a 2018 Commonwealth Shared Scholar from Rwanda. He completed an MSc in Renewable Energy at Cranfield University.